by Eric J. Krause
He wiped the sweat from his brow and hefted the crying woman onto his shoulder. She'd climbed the multiple stories like a trooper, but now, so close to their goal, she couldn't go on. He'd seen it so many times that he carried her without giving it a second thought.
He stepped over and through the wreckage, avoiding the broken step halfway up the second-to-last story. As they got to the top, the light energized her, and she hopped down and ran the rest of the way. She called a thank you over her shoulder, but didn't see his wave and smile.
He headed back down all 110 stories. That lady had been the last to dig herself out of the ruins, but he had to make sure. He'd helped almost 1500 dead souls find their way to peace, but he'd count himself a failure if he left even one behind.
Nothing moved on the bottom floor. He could neither hear nor sense any souls burrowing through the rubble. He'd finished. The only one left to save was himself. Fatigue chose that moment to crash down almost as hard as the tower when the plane exploded into it. Now that no one depended on him, where was he going to find the energy to march all the way up to the light?
He lifted one heavy boot up to the first stair, and implored himself to continue. With the desperate souls, the jaunt to the top, even the spots where debris made climbing a necessity, took little time or effort. But now that he was on his own, the stairwell might as well have been a broken path up Everest.
He couldn't bring himself to quit. He wouldn't lie down and wait for whatever end he'd earned to come get him. That wasn't his style. He needed to meet his afterlife head on, and that meant traversing the rubble-strewn stairwell all the way to the top floor. To that white light.
And continue he did. Up past the cave-ins. Up past the impact site. Up, up, and up some more. He'd lost count, but if he had to guess, he'd dragged his tired body, his tired soul, up the tower three times further than possible. Until finally he recognized where he was. He heard the soft hum of the light, and willed it to fill him with energy as it did for all those he helped.
A few more steps up brought a tingle, but no renewing power. That was when he realized, too late, that they'd always been revitalized after the broken step halfway up the second-to-last story. His steel-toed boot came down on that step, and his foot crashed through. That first trip, who knows how many hours, days, millennia ago, he'd done the same, but he'd pulled himself out as if nothing had happened. Every time since, he'd remembered to skip it. Now, however, he tried to escape and couldn't. Would this be his eternity? Stuck tight in the ghost of a destroyed building, a story and a half away from salvation?
The pitch of the humming above him altered, and soft footsteps echoed off the walls. He stood waiting, watching. A being made entirely of light rounded the corner and stared down at him, smiling. No words were exchanged, but he knew he had its supreme gratitude for saving the souls which otherwise would have been lost. Peace, love, and hope filled him, and he knew now he could continue his trek to the light above the 110th story without trouble.
Before he could move, the almost 1500 souls he'd liberated descended to him from around the heavenly being. They lifted him out of the broken step and hoisted him to their shoulders. They carried him like a king up the final steps, and the warm, peaceful light enveloped him.